Director: Ronald Neame
Writer: Leslie Bricusse; A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens
Producer: Robert H. Solo
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
by Jon Cvack
It was after reading "A Christmas Carol" and spending the last few years looking up the various renditions on Netflix that I was finally able to come across this version, what is the last of the live action versions, later discovering that its director Ronald Neame was the guy who made The Poseidon Adventure along with three films in the Criterion Collection - Hopscotch (1980), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Funny enough, upon finishing this film and looking up the list of greatest adaptations, I came upon Collider’s ranking of the top twenty from best to the worst. Yet while they position this version last, there are actually about fifty adaptations of the story when including television adaptations. With the exception of maybe the Bible, A Christmas Carol is looks to be the most adapted piece of literature ever created.
My dad is a Conservative with some liberal tendencies when you really get into the details (not that he’d necessarily admit it). I grew up with the movies he’d show me, everything from Executive Decision (1996) to Star Wars (1977) to The Sound of Music (1965). He wasn’t necessarily a film buff, so much as someone who enjoyed hitting up the video store on the way back home and choosing something interesting, or buying some of his favorite movies from the past. Nowadays, he’s more into Hallmark movies, as it seems like conservative talking heads have been successful in demonizing Hollywood, to the point where they view much of its work as liberal hogwash. Nevertheless, two films he always put on during Christmas were It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the 1956 Christmas Carol, or leaving one of the various adaptations on while scanning the television.
The more I studied film and developed my own politics, the more I comprehended what both of these films were exploring - about the dangers of greed and disregard for others. I recall The Daily Show showing a clip of how Fox News would roll ads for It’s a Wonderful Life if it came today, championing Henry F. Potter as the hero over the socialist George Bailey. In an age where the right wants to say the left hates free enterprise, despises the rich, and wants to create class warfare, it’s hard to see how a story like It’s a Wonderful Life could honor that philosophy, as it so heavily argues against greed and excess.
A Christmas Carol is an even more extreme version, leaving you to wonder how a film so identifiably liberal would remain so popular across the political spectrum. The first element is the combination of melodrama, horror, and time travel; three concepts that provide less inspired ways to provide a good reader/viewer experience (when done well). The second element is the environment, placing these devices against an overcast city backdrop, with snow packed streets providing a specific chill within each film; where I often find myself putting on a blanket and bundling up with the lights off. The greatest versions - ‘38, ‘56, ‘88, ‘99 - all embody these ideas, then moving onto the third best element, using sound, set design, light, and - what I imagine is the most fun to develop - effects to create the atmosphere; best example being use of Death in Scrooged (1988) and the ways Bill Murray fails to differentiate between what’s an actual ghost versus something his production created.
Of course, it then comes down to the final element which is the performance, providing what seems almost like a right of passage for the greatest actors. In this case, the 1970 Scrooge includes Albert Finney, who plays one of the coldest and most frightening versions of the character, seemingly unable to open his crooked mouth enough to speak, forcing his words to get lost between his grunts and yells. This version includes a brilliant prop, which is a steal thimble that takes a specific number of coins, allowing the count to go faster, where Scrooge hunches over and assembles his profits into neat piles.
Scrooge’s assistant Bob Cratchit (David Collings) sits at his usual bar high desk, scratching in figures, waiting for the clock to strike six before requesting Christmas off with pay. Scrooge acquiesces, unhappy about the arrangement and then heads home to which the first actual musical number then kicks in (there’s an earlier song with some poor caroling boys, but the song was justified). Albert Finney begins singing what could easily be a meme, belching, “I hate people, I hate people...” on repeat as he walks down the London streets while the boys goad him on. Although the scene is a bit weird - especially given how dark the film is up to this point - it does provides an additional and refreshing layer of Scrooge. We see all the people that owe him money and what they do, how they vary from deadbeats who try and avoid paying him back to those who’re always on time to those begging for an extension. He rejects them all, demanding the payment no matter the excuse.
He returns home to what’s typically my favorite scene in most versions - seeing both where he lives; often an extraordinarily lonely and decrepit mansion. He arrives to the front door, seeing Marlowe’s spirit in the door knocker, making his way up the cold, drafty stairs, with a bowl of soup, in his pajamas, with walls and halls so high, dark, or far; as though it’s swallowing Scrooge, with nothing but the fire offering any bit of hope. It creates the perfect setting for his old associate Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness; who I knew was in the movie but didn’t even recognize) to appear, covered in chains and doomed to hell for eternity for the terrible life and immoral life he lived. Unfortunately, the chains in this case are so obviously plastic that the effect doesn’t even kind of work, and perhaps being the reason why I didn’t notice Alec Guinness as I honestly couldn’t look away from how bad the prop was.
We all know where it goes from there, moving from the past to present to future. The past is a weird scene, as on the one hand it offers a fairly cool song and dance sequence while completely failing to convey Scrooge’s relationship to Isabel (Suzanne Neve). From there, it plays pretty much as generic as it gets, until Scrooge ends up in hell, being covered in hundreds of feet of chain as punishment, which for some reason didn’t look as terrible as Jacob’s chains from earlier. It’s pretty much what you expect, with the added bonus of seeing Albert Finney’s grating Scrooge switch into his redemptive self; though Finney’s role was so dark I was left wondering - for the first time ever watching an adaptation - whether Scrooge had a chance of falling back into darkness and greed, as Finney’s character seemed maybe to have only a few years before falling off the wagon.
It’s a solid film and worth checking out. Not necessarily the best, and while I’d like to say far higher on the list of the top twenty, it’s reading that list and into this film that I realize how few of the adaptations I’ve seen. In fact, a 25 minute animated version won the Best Short Oscar in 1951 (which Vox says is the best version ever made; I’m waiting until next year). I can think of about six other versions I’d put on first, but if you like the series then Scrooge is worth checking out.
BELOW: One of the greatest battles ever to graze the screen
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